Month: December 2017 (page 2 of 4)

World-class ice rink in Dehradun facing meltdown

By Hindustan Times

Constructed at a cost of over Rs. 100 crore, the ice skating rink here – the only international-sized facility in the country – is in a state of disuse since its inauguration six years ago. Though it began functioning in 2011, the facility has been shut, thanks to the high maintenance cost which the Uttarakhand government unable to bear.

The facility houses an Olympic-sized rink with a seating capacity of over 2,500. After its launch with the South Asian Winter Games in January 2011, the other event hosted by it was the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Challenge Cup of Asia in March 2012, and two local ice skating and training events.

Shut since then, sources said the state government could not afford the expenditure required for keeping the arena functional – over Rs. 30,000 daily on electricity, in addition to maintenance of high-cost machines, roping in technical experts, trained staff and other operational costs.

In 2015, the union sports ministry had assured Parliament that it would help restart the rink but that is yet to happen.

“As the rink is not operational, Indian ice hockey and skating players are forced to train abroad (for short duration’s at higher costs) or at commercial rinks (in Gurgaon and Mumbai) which are not of international size,” Shiv Painuly, president of the Ice Skating Association of Uttarakhand, told Hindustan Times.

He said the state has six international and 45 national-level awards in ice skating “without any facility to train”. “Imagine how our medal count would soar with athletes getting to practice here.”

Experts say had it been maintained, the arena would have not only provided a much-needed platform to Indian ice sports athletes, and would have attracted a large number of domestic and international tourists.

“With maintenance and effective publicity, the state-of-the-art rink would have put the state on the global map by attracting lovers of ice hockey and skating as well as tourists from all over the world,” said Arvind Gupta, secretary, Association of Roller Skating, Uttarakhand.

Painuly, who is also the chairperson of the Infrastructure Development Committee-Ice Rink of the Ice Skating Association of India, said the panel had approached the state government to restart operations. “Besides making urgent efforts, the state government should also pursue the matter with the Central government to save the asset from getting wasted,” he said.

When contacted, Neeraj Gupta, chief operating officer of the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex Society (a society under the Uttarakhand government which was given the mandate to manage the rink), said efforts were being made to revive the rink on a public-private partnership mode. “We had invited bids from private players for running the facility earlier this year, but only a single bid was received. We’ll be calling for tenders again so that the rink can be made functional,” Gupta told HT.

World Junior Preview: Russia & Switzerland

By Steven Elliis – Eurhockey.com

No matter what year it is, Russia’s World Junior team always seems to be a big mystery. The players themselves aren’t really, thanks to the KHL and CHL Super Series exposing the world to what the country has to offer.

But when they all mix together, that’s when it gets a bit muddy. Some years, everything clicks. The offense is firing on all cylinders, the goaltending is stealing the show and contests are fun, exciting battles each night.

Other times, the team has too many personalities trying to prove their the best, and the team suffers as a result. After losing the Summit Series in Canada in November, there were questions about which Russian team we’d be treated to in Buffalo this year.

The verdict? All signs point to another medal contender, but their path may be troubled along the way.

Goaltending: Filling Ilya Samsonov’s crease this year is about to get a little tougher than expected. After the CHL-Russia Summit Series concluded, all signs pointed to undrafted prospect Vladislav Sukhachev getting the nod. Currently in his first year as a VHL starting goalie, Sukhachev has had a good season with Chelmet Chelyabinsk and played decently for Russia in the CHL series. He’s been good at every level he’s participated in Russia, which includes a gold medal at the 2014 U17’s, a silver at the 2015 World Junior A Challenge, and bronze medals at the Ivan Hlinka in 2016 and last year’s World Juniors. Winnipeg Jets seventh rounder Mikhail Berdin should also get a couple of starts, with the Sioux Falls Stampede putting up strong numbers, but at this point, it’s Sukhachev’s net to lose. 

Defensemen: Oh boy. Yes, Russia always seems to stink when it comes to their defense, but good thing they have Mikhail Serga… oh, yeah, right. Trust me, that’s not changing this year. Leading the way of Russia’s effort is New Jersey Devils draft pick Egor Zaitsev, a 19-year-old playing in his first international tournament for Russia since the 2014 Under-17’s. Zaitsev has become a full-time KHLer with Dynamo Moskva this season and plays a physical game despite his smaller stature. Two-way defender Artyom Minulin will be joining him as a minute-cruncher for the Russians, with the Swift Current Broncos defenseman off to a great season in his third WHL campaign. He overcame an upper body injury in mid-November to get right back on track and should be a good asset for the Russians.

So what’s next? Guelph Storm defenseman Dimitri Samorukov brings speed to a defense core that simply doesn’t have it. Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers this past June, Samorukov had back-to-back tremendous Under-18 tournaments and was Russia’s best defense in both Super Series games he played in.

Red Deer Rebels defender and upcoming NHL Draft prospect Alexander Alexeyev won’t be counted to bring the offense, but with a big frame and a good shot, he can get the puck where it needs to be. Scouts seem to have mixed views of Alexeyev, with some people expecting him to be a mid-first rounder, while others think he could fall near to near the end of the second. With Russia weak on the blue line, this is his time to show scouts he’s worth a shot.

Another big boy, Artyom Minulin, had an average Super Series tournament back in November and hasn’t looked overly spectacular in previous tournaments with Russia. Still, the undrafted prospect appeared to be a mid-round draft option last year but will give the draft a second chance this year. Minulin is a creative playmaker who’s good at a lot of things, but not spectacular at anything.

Forwards: Russia’s offense is always the center of attention in international play and that’s no different this year. The team will be counting on German Rubtsov to lead the charge, and with his international record looking pretty spiffy, that’s a reasonable expectation. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect didn’t record a point in a limited role at last year’s World Juniors, but the centerman has shown lots of poise and skill ever since. Currently with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan, the playmaking forward will rack up a few assists this year, likely setting up star prospect Andrei Svechnikov.

Svechnikov, of course, is expected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming draft and a good tournament could push him closer to the number one spot.  Last season alone, Svechnikov had the most points at the World Under-17 Challenge, won a bronze at the U17 and U18 level and was named the World Junior A Challenge’s MVP after one of the most memorable tournament performances to date. The reigning USHL rookie of the year has made a great transition to the OHL’s Barrie Colts, recently coming off of an injury to score a hat-trick before joining the Russians for their training camp. If you get him in the right spot, he’ll get your team many, many goals, and that’s something the Russians can look forward too, even if this may be his only year at the tournament.

Russia doesn’t have a lot of NHL draft picks on the roster, but the few they have are rather decent. Chicago will specifically be keeping an eye on Andrei Altybarmakyan and Artur Kayumov. Altybarmakyan is the most recent draft pick, getting called 70th overall earlier in June, and with six points in nine previous games with the U20 team this year, he’s off to a good season. Altybarmakyan has been up and down in the Russian hockey system this year, earning 13 games with SKA St. Petersburg, mostly in a limited role. One of Russia’s best players at the recent Super Series, Altybarkmakyan has never represented the Russians in a proper international event but he has the potential to become a top six winger for the country in Buffalo.

Kayumov getting the chance to represent Russia at the World Juniors is a long time coming. The 19-year-old has always been one of the best players in his age group wherever he’s played, earning him a second round spot at the 2016 draft. Kayumov was spectacular in both tournaments he represented the Russians at, the 2015 Hlinka Memorial and the World Junior A Challenge a few months later and will be expected to put up a few points as the team looks to make the finals.

Currently in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage, Klim Kostin annoys every defenseman he comes across and makes plays out of small openings. Sure, it may not seem like that with his two total points in three leagues last year, but Kostin is a player you can throw in any offensive position and make an impact. He’s a good skater for a tall guy and beats guys one-on-one with quick dekes on a daily basis. The 2016 Hlinka Memorial team captain plays at a different level when he wears his nation’s colours and his leadership and skill is a big asset to the team.

A Minnesota Wild seventh rounder with AHL experience already, Sudbury Wolves forward Dmitri Sokolov is hoping his solid Super Series performance against Team OHL will translate into some opportunities for some elevated roles with the junior team. He was tremendous with the U17 team a few years back and the former OHL rookie goal-scoring leader was one of Russia’s best players at the 2015 Under-18’s, so he’ll want to make his mark as a speedy forward on the talented Russian offense.

New Jersey Devils prospect Mikhail Maltsev has played in the KHL, VHL and MHL this season, putting up points in all three leagues. Getting the chance to play against men has made Maltsev a better player, and this after a great 2015 World Junior A Challenge performance where he was Russia’s most electric forward. If he gets the chance to play with SKA St. Petersburg next year, he’ll be filled with KHL all-stars that will help elevate his game to the next level. This year, the Maltsev could realistically fight for the second centerman spot on Russia, which would be huge for his development.

Projection: Projecting Russia to be one of the top teams at the World Juniors seems lazy, but it could very well come true this season. Russia always finds a way to make noise during an international event and with some great young talent with the potential to return a year from now, there’s a lot of positives to the Russians this season. They may not be the best team, but expecting them to finish in the medal round is quite reasonable.

One of the biggest success stories when it comes to hockey growth happens to be with Switzerland, a country that went from having zero NHLers in the league in the 90’s to hitting their peak of 1.7% of NHLers coming from the country for the 2017-2018 season.

Thanks to the likes of Roman Josi, Nino Niederreiter and Nico Hischier, the country has had reasons to cheer at the World Juniors over the past ten years. They’ve had some surprising performances, including their fourth-place finish in 2010, a year after just earning promotion.

This year, the team will need a bit of luck. It’s still expected that they’ll be able to make the quarterfinals, but after that, especially with the expected resurgence of the Czech Republic, Switzerland’s tournament could end up being rather lackluster this year unless somebody can fill the void of the missing Hischier.

Goaltending: Switzerland still holds the honor of having one of the most memorable goalie performances of all time at the World Juniors, and that’s Benjamin Conz’s 2010 tournament. Since then, however, the team has struggled to find much stability between the pipes, and despite a few positives over the past few years, it’s typically not their strongest position.

Returning to the team this year is Matteo Ritz, who didn’t actually see any action in the Swiss’ run to the quarterfinals. If you check out his stats online, you’ll notice he has a 48.65 GAA in one NLA game with Lausanne, so you may be thinking ‘uh oh’. Of course, that stat is skewed due to only playing a few minutes, but the 19-year-old is poised to become a full-time NLAer in a few years and this is his best chance to prove himself. As a whole, he hasn’t been facing great competition down in the Swiss minor league ranks but he did look really good with the Swiss in U20 exhibition games last year.

Another fellow returnee, Philip Wüthrich, doesn’t cover a lot of net, but he has put up great numbers with SC Bern’s junior team. Wüthrich was the best goalie at the International Chablais Hockey tournament back in November, and while they did play a couple of Division IA teams, he held his ground when it matters most. An early edge could go to Wüthrich at this point, but it’s expected that they’ll share the goalie duties.

Defensemen: The blue line is typically Switzerland’s strongest position, no matter what tournament they’re in. They’ll have to find a way to replace Jonas Siegenthaler, but likely in the form of a couple of players instead of one great one. Dominik Egli could be one of the answers for the team. Egil outplayed many of his older companions on the roster at last year’s team, and while he doesn’t have much size to work with, he’s got the pure skill. He’s played well with a weak EHC Kloten team and is noticeable in most games, usually for a positive reason.

Washington Capitals prospect Tobias Geisser, however, will likely earn most of the ice time. The Swiss gave him a lot of chances in exhibition contests back in 2016-2017 before cutting him prior to the 2016 World Juniors, but he was valuable to the team’s effort a year ago as they tried to shut down the Americans in the quarterfinals. He was a Swiss star at the 2016 Under-18’s despite being underage, but after a good sophomore season with EV Zug, he’s made an effort with his quick speed to become a useful asset for the team.

Oshawa Generals d-man Nico Gross will be entering his second World Junior tournament, a big feat considering he doesn’t even turn 18 until January. Gross hasn’t been great on Oshawa’s second defense pairing but he’s improved as the season went on after fighting mononucleosis at the start of the campaign. This could be his opportunity to get his season going smoothly.

Another defender worth keeping an eye on is Simon Le Coultre, a member of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. Le Coultre has played for a poor Moncton Wildcats team over the past two years and has had to do a lot to help his team be competitive, but that’s always a good test for a young defender. He’ll face similar competition each night at the juniors, the biggest challenge of his career to date. If he still intends on getting drafted to the NHL, this is his best bet to be chosen late in June.

Forwards: With no Hischier up front, the club will need to replenish some of their big-time goals that made them a surprise contender late in the tournament. Philipp Kurashev will be one of the biggest stars, with the potential first-rounder off to a great second year with the Quebec Ramparts. With 31 points in 33 games, Kurashev is a great playmaker that played more of a scoring role at April’s Under-18’s, while also providing six goals and nine points in 14 U20 games last season. In Slovakia this summer at the U20 Summer Challenge, Kurashev helped his team win the gold medal after scoring twice against the hosts, a big game for the Swiss scoring star. The competition will be tougher at the juniors, but with the season he’s having, Kurashev is Switzerland’s best bet to win games this season.

One of Switzerland’s most promising forwards is HC Davos winger Nando Eggenberger. Missing the Spengler Cup to play at the World Juniors is always an interesting situation, but Eggenberger has performed well enough internationally for the Swiss to earn his place. His 17 points in 18 U18 games last year was impressive enough, and he’s already played 15 U20 games over the past few years. He’s typically been one of the younger players on any of the teams he’s played at and if he does indeed become a second rounder in the NHL, he could be a star at next year’s tournament, too.

Nicolas Müller is a guy that not many people are talking about, but the MODO U20 forward has been rather impressive in his first full season with the Swedish club. He was easily one of the Swiss’ best players at the 2016 Hlinka Memorial and he played particularly well at the Under-18’s last year. He’s been a major contributor at every international level he’s played at and there’s a lot of reason to believe he can be a valuable player in Buffalo.

Kamloops Blazers forward Justin Sigrist has been a healthy scratch on various occasions in the WHL this year, so this can be the tournament that finally turns his season around. Justin’s twin, Shannon, is a member of the Swiss women’s national team, so there will be enough friendly competition to outdo each other in each of their major international competitions over the next few months. Justin has been good in four U20 games with the Swiss this year, but he’ll look to really pull his game together on NHL sized ice after a great World Junior A Challenge tournament last year.

The Swiss will also expect a lot out of Marco Miranda and Valentin Nussbaumer. For Miranda, the team could make him a top line winger thanks to his deceptive speed, but his inconsistencies could hurt. And for Nussbaumer, the 2019 draft prospect will have to find his form after an injury if he wants to become a potent player down the middle.

To wrap it up, there will be a few eyes following the progress of 2018 draft prospect Gilian Kohler. Kohler hasn’t produced that much offense in his first season in the WHL, but he recorded an incredible 42 assists and 50 points in 43 games as a 16-year-old in the Swiss U20 league last year. The same attention will be applied to Stéphane Patry, who hasn’t been great in the OHL with the Erie Otters, but when you’re chances are limited, that’s the nature of the beast. Again, this is a great chance for the youngster to prove his worth.

Projection: The Swiss don’t have many offensive tools to work with, and the defense core will require to work by committee to offset a lack of experience. Overall, this isn’t a Swiss team to get excited for, and if a loss to the Danes in pre-tournament action is any indication, there’s a lot to be desired with the team that doesn’t excel in any category.

Can Russia help China crack ice hockey?

The deafening sound of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blared from speakers as fans made their way to their seats for the opening home game of the new season. Jumbo-trons flashed with adverts and action replays as players from both teams — a mix of Scandinavian, Slavic and North American names stenciled on their jerseys — skated lazily round the ice below, practicing slap shots and passes.

It could have been match day in Moscow, Malmo or Montreal, but this was Shanghai in September, and although the fans inside the Sanlin Sports Center were wearing mittens and scarves, outside it was a glittering tropical night at the end of the monsoon season. A closer inspection of the players’ jerseys showed a number of anglicized Chinese or Cantonese names such as Yuen, Yip and Jaw — rare in ice hockey, an overwhelmingly white, northern-climate sport.

As the game got under way between Beijing Kunlun Red Star, China’s first world-class professional hockey team, and Jokerit of Helsinki, it was clear that many of the spectators hadn’t watched the sport much before. Occasionally they seemed unsure of when to cheer, though they were clearly exhilarated by the fast-paced action that followed the face-offs as punches were thrown, bodies slammed into the boards and pucks zinged bullet-like across the rink — even though Red Star ended up losing 4-1.

Though the 5,000-seater stadium was only about half full — efforts to create a Mexican wave repeatedly petered out in empty bleachers — the club is gaining popularity, according to Red Star’s winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who hails from Kiev and spent most of his career in North America’s National Hockey League (NHL). The first home game of the previous season attracted about 200 people, he says. “It was like a practice. Now we are seeing some real interest. It’s a good sign.”

Until very recently, a world-class hockey team was not something China desperately needed. But that changed two years ago when Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and suddenly had to come to grips with a serious deficiency in the games’ marquee sport. By tradition, the host nation can field a team in every sport; in this case taking on ice-hockey superpowers such as Russia, the US, Sweden, Finland and current Olympic champions Canada. Team China, currently ranked 37th in the world, one below Mexico, has a huge challenge to make up the gap.

Perhaps worse than losing matches is the prospect of losing face, if the ­Beijing 2022 Games leads to a revolt by the world’s elite players, who have taken time out from their regular season to represent their countries at the Olympics. “The idea of going to play in a time zone 13 or 14 hours ahead, with a home team that everyone will beat by 10-15 goals, is not something that is going to sit well with the best players and owners in the NHL,” says Mark Simon, a former consultant for Red Star.

China is not the first non-hockey-playing nation that has had to improve its national team in the face of near-certain Olympic humiliation. South Korea, which hosts the 2018 Winter Games in January, granted citizenship to five Canadian hockey pros, none of whom had any South Korean ancestry. Most only had to learn the national anthem.

But handing out passports to Russians, Canadians and Finns is not something that will fly in China, politically or legally. Under the nationalities law, citizenship is almost impossible to obtain except for those with Chinese ancestry. Then there is the political reality of modern China’s chest-thumping nationalism, which is rising as the country throws off what it sees as 150 years of humiliation at the hands of the west.

“Having your hockey team named Jones or Markov just isn’t going to work here,” says Mark Dreyer, who runs a sports blog in Beijing. “New converts to the Chinese national team would not be accepted by the public unless there was a genuine Chinese connection.”

China’s desperation presented an opportunity that Russia, eager to build ties with China in the wake of US sanctions, was quick to seize. In June 2016, as part of a raft of other agreements, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing and hammered out a deal with China’s President Xi Jinping to set up an ice-hockey team. Kunlun Red Star would be the germ of an Olympic program, attracting world-class hockey players and developing Chinese talent.

For good measure, the team would play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), set up by Putin in 2008 and chaired by his good friend Gennady Timchenko, an oil and gas magnate worth $15bn, according to Forbes. Last year, coaches, players and staff from the KHL were rushed to Beijing to lend a hand, while Timchenko — who is under US Treasury Department sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — personally took a stake in the club.

Just as the exchange of table-tennis players presaged US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 arrival in Beijing, ultimately detaching China from the Soviet bloc, so Putin’s hockey diplomacy takes place as geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting in the other direction. Building relations with China has become a strategic priority for Russia at a time of international isolation in the wake of war in Ukraine. And Russia, likewise, is a convenient hedge for China, which is butting up against US hegemony in Asia.

“We all know about ping-pong diplomacy,” says Zhao Xiaoyu, the former vice-president of the Asian Development Bank, who was named as Kunlun Red Star’s chairman earlier this year. “There is clearly a political aspect to this.”

The Russia-China hockey experiment has been given top priority by the leaders of both countries. The club is not short of talent or funds: “We are very well taken care of [financially],” says Red Star forward Brandon Yip. Citic and Vanke, two blue-chip Chinese conglomerates, sponsor the team, a sure sign of official favour. But for the experiment to really work, it will have to attract a Chinese audience — and Chinese fans are thought by experts to dislike contact and violence in sports, both of which hockey serves up in large doses. There are also no mainland Chinese stars to bring the game to China the way the Shanghai-born Yao Ming did when he became an NBA basketball sensation in the US.

“It’s really a challenge to balance this — the entertainment side of it — versus the competition side of it,” says Red Star’s chairman Zhao. “If you don’t win the game, people will lose interest. The only way to keep them interested is to keep winning. You also have to have some Chinese names on the jerseys . . . We would ­naturally prefer to see Asian faces.”

China’s President Xi Jinping with ice-hockey and skating fans at Wukesong Sports Center in Beijing in February

Zhao is the Chinese face of a team that is not, for now, very Chinese. Avuncular and jolly, with fluent English, he has represented the Chinese government in a number of multilateral finance roles.

“I’ve been in training,” he jokes, pointing to a hockey stick in his office, though he admits he was chosen more for his international business diplomacy skills than for his knowledge of the game.

He says politics is not the only aspect of the Red Star project — “nor the most important one”. He believes that hockey will be a great business in China, piggybacking on the global rise of the Chinese middle class. 

 “Ice hockey is an upper-middle-income-country game,” he says. “The equipment, the training, it’s expensive and takes a long time. It is popular among the upper and middle-upper class — their income can support this game. It’s a sport that you cannot afford to do until you develop to a certain level, and it is a sign that China has arrived there.”

For a sport that has a million registered hockey players worldwide, the Chinese market certainly represents a sizeable opportunity. Currently there are slightly more than 1,000 amateur adult players, mainly in China’s north-east. But in China, sport must also respond to political priorities — and ice hockey is a ­priority now. The government has laid plans for 500 new skating rinks by 2022, and many Chinese cities have responded to the Winter Olympics win by making winter sports mandatory in elementary and middle schools. In Beijing, minor league hockey started out in 2008 with four teams and 60 players; today, there are 130 clubs and 3,000 kids playing. Ice-hockey ­tickets have been part of numerous school promotions.

Young players in the changing room at the Tiger Cub Ice Hockey in northern Beijing

Children and their parents are curious about this new sport. At a junior game last season in Beijing, one dad told me: “My son likes the pads — he says they make him look like a robot.” Sharon Li, whose seven-year-old son has recently taken up lessons, said: “I like the game because the players are very aggressive. It’s a very manly game.”

According to Zhao, ice hockey’s appeal to this generation of parents is clear. China’s infamous “one-child policy” has created its own culture. “In families which have one boy, the boy tends to be spoiled in many ways because they have grandparents and older generations. That’s a lot of people paying attention to only one boy,” Zhao explains. “So the boy doesn’t grow up very manly, and in many cases doesn’t know how to play in teams. This game is really a man’s game. You have clashes, power, even fights.”

Even more important, he adds, is the teamwork. “If they are an only child, they don’t really know how to deal with others. They want to be the centre of everything. So teamwork is important.”

The only problem, says Mark Simon, is that Chinese parents may see things a little differently. Hockey, a middle-class sport in the west, has become something of an elite status symbol in China, an expensive — and imported — luxury commodity. Partly due to aggressive marketing by rink companies, most parents, he says, insist on one-on-one lessons because they assume that it’s better to have the coach’s full attention. So much for teamwork.

Not only that, says Simon, but kids in China “peak when they are eight”; by 12, they are studying full time and have given up hockey. “We need to keep kids and parents interested.” Until that changes, he adds, the chances of seeing a lot of mainland Chinese ice-hockey players at the Olympics are not going to improve.

Bringing hockey to China was never going to be easy. Just how difficult has become abundantly clear during the brief history of Kunlun Red Star. Despite an impressive first year under its Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov Jr, in which the team reached the KHL play-off stages, it nonetheless failed in one crucial metric: Chinese players were not getting enough ice time.

The ceremonial face-off at Red Star’s opening home game this season against Helsinki’s Jokerit in Shanghai in September

Yurzinov defended his strategy, explaining that the principle of having Chinese names on jerseys had to be subordinated to the overall performance. But Red Star’s owners wanted it both ways. Yurzinov retired suddenly in March, replaced by “Iron” Mike Keenan, an NHL hockey legend, who won over the Chinese by betting that he could make a winning KHL team by developing naturalized Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian players.

Vancouver and Toronto, hotbeds of Canadian ice hockey, became the focus of his recruitment drive and hosted development camps in the summer for Chinese-Canadian players. By the time of September’s game against Jokerit in Shanghai, the results of his efforts were evident.

Six of the Red Star squad that night were part-Chinese by way of Canada or the US, some as far back as third generation (which would speed their path to citizenship). “They said, ‘Hey, we need some Chinese players and you fit both categories. You play pro hockey somewhere, and you have Chinese ancestry.’ And that was the main discussion,” recalls Cory Kane, who hails from Irvine, California, of the selection interviews that saw him join up.

Finding the players was not that hard, as it turns out. As Brayden Jaw, another of Red Star’s Canadian contingent, puts it, “There are so few Chinese players [in professional hockey] that we know each other.” But the “ABC” — American-Born ­Chinese — players have faced skepticism in their putative homeland. Just how Chinese are they really?

Two days before the Jokerit game, China got a chance to find out when the team flew into Shanghai to meet the fans. Many of the new players were in the country they represented on ice for the first time. A welcome ceremony organized by the team included speeches from local officials and a bouncy cheerleader routine. Finally, the evening’s emcee bellowed, “Let’s meet our Chinese players!” and the six shuffled on to a stage to be playfully interrogated.

“Can you say ‘Hello’ in Chinese?” the emcee said playfully to Brandon Yip, a three-quarters Chinese, one-quarter Irish forward from Canada, who had moved from Dusseldorf to play for Red Star. “Um, hello,” Yip replied in English, before trying a “Ni Hao” to applause and laughter.

Next up was Kane, who was playing in Trinec in the Czech Republic before he got the call to come to play for the motherland — or rather his Chinese mother’s motherland — last summer. Zeroing in on Kane’s ­Chinese name, Jianan, the announcer saw another chance to test the players’ erudition. “Your Chinese name reminds me of the literary style of Cao Cao,” he said, referring to a 2nd-century poet-warlord. “Alright, yeah!” replied an amused and clearly baffled Kane.

Only Zach Yuen spoke Mandarin. In June 2016, as Kunlun Red Star was being formed, Yuen had been found playing minor league ice hockey for US team Idaho Steelheads. He jumped at the chance to come to China, where he has become the Chinese face of the team; he has been interviewed by Chinese GQ and even inspired a Zach Yuen action figure. “I’m very happy to play hockey in China, it’s a chance to make friends and get closer to my culture,” Yuen told his fans in fluent Mandarin.

As the event demonstrated, the team is clearly divided between the players picked with the Olympics in mind, and the rest (“I didn’t like being singled out so much. We’re a team in the end,” says Jaw). But the Chinese players will have to think very hard about how Chinese they feel. The law forbids dual nationality: anyone taking Chinese nationality will have to give up their existing one. The only athlete to have done this is Alex Hua Tian, a London-born equestrian, who took Chinese citizenship to ride in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

Of the six, only Yuen said he was definitely willing to take this step. “I come from a pretty Chinese background, so China feels like home. I would give up my Canadian citizenship for a Chinese passport. The other guys, I’m not so sure. A lot of them come from third or fourth generation and don’t speak Chinese.”

The Japan-China match at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, February 2017; Japan won the game 14-0

For some of the Red Star players, however, it seems that Chinese ­officialdom might be set to make some exceptions in its efforts to avoid an Olympic hockey meltdown.

“There is something in the works, but I don’t think it will be dual citizenship. It’s more of a grey area than that,” says Yuen. Kunlun’s chairman Zhao declines to be specific, but talks of the hockey players as “a special case”. “There is a way,” he says, conspiratorially. “It’s happening in Korea, why not in China?”

In the meantime, Red Star’s plan to rely on naturalized Chinese players has run into trouble. While the team started the season well — they were at the top of the KHL’s eastern conference after the first dozen games — in November, they hit a losing streak. Keenan tried to have Zach Yuen cut from the team and sent to a lower-league team. But Yuen, who is popular with the Chinese fans, refused to go.

Members of the team said Keenan’s confrontational personal style had become a problem. “He was always known as Iron Mike. Nothing new there, I guess,” said one team official. Then this month, as the club kept on losing, Keenan was sacked as coach. “As time went by it became more and more obvious that it was too much for Mike,” said Oleg Vinokurov, the team’s spokesman, “In the end, he just lost his grip on the team.” Keenan could not be reached for comment. Yuen says he is now in talks to return to the team after training on his own for two months.

Mark Simon blames Keenan’s aggressive style for the rift with the club’s Chinese patrons. Keenan and the Chinese “were like two magnets that repel each other”, he says. “But there is something bigger going on. Eight months, two coaches — that starts to be a pattern.”

They need to get it right soon. At the Asian winter games in Sapporo earlier this year, Team China let in 32 goals in three games and failed to score a single goal against South Korea (10-0) Japan (14-0) and Kazakhstan (8-0) — hardly ice-hockey superpowers. Even the official Xinhua news agency, used to putting a positive spin on disaster, said: “This demonstrated the gap between China men’s hockey level with top level in Asia.” Building hockey in China, added Xinhua, was like “building bricks without straw”.

At a press conference, the national team’s coach Hu Jiang blurted out his frustrations: “With no one able to play, everything is just useless.”

World Junior Preview: Denmark & Finland

By Steven Eliis – Eurohockey.com

2015 was a magical year for the country. With easily the greatest junior team Denmark has ever sent, with the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers, George Sorenson and Oliver Bjorkstrand leading the team into the quarter-finals for the first time ever.

In 2016, they did it again. 2017? Shockingly, for the third time. Heck, they finished second in Group A last year, and even beat Finland… in regulation.

This time, don’t look for for another glory year.

Denmark enters the 2018 tournament with a team without a star, something they’ve had on their side for the past few seasons. The thing about teams facing relegation is that they typically have a player or two that, above and beyond, steal the spotlight for their nation.

Maybe Denmark can get the job done with a team built up of grinders, working hard to shut down their opponents and pop in a goal or two to shock a bigger nation. Or maybe the prophecy is true, and that success just doesn’t seem possible

Goaltending: Like with Belarus, this is the most important position in the long run for the Danes. In three games at the Four Nations tournament in Latvia in November, Kasper Krog had the worst result on any of the three goalies Denmark dressed in the tournament (he played against Belarus, who won the tournament), but does have experience at the World Juniors from last year. He had a decent three game stint, which included him being in net for a tremendous performance over Finland early in the tournament for Finland’s most impressive victory to date. If Krog doesn’t pan out, William Rørth could be the answer. Rørth had a nice Under-18 World Championship performance and did shutout Latvia at the Four Nations tournament, but Latvia also finished the three-game tournament without a point.

Defencemen: The defence will need to be doing a lot of running around this year, but it looks like they have some decent options to stand up to their opponents. One guy in particular, Malte Setkov, literally stands at 6-foot-6, so, there’s that. Detroit’s fourth-round pick in June, Setkov is a two-way defenceman who excels at jumping into the play and contributing on the power-play, something the team will really need to take advantage if they want to score a few surprise goals.

Then there’s undrafted prospect Oliver Joakim Larsen, a blueliner who will want to sneak his name onto NHL radars through the event. A big, physical presence, Larsen will be more of a shutdown player for the Danes, at least compared to Setkov. He’s had a strong season in Sweden, however, putting up seven points in his first 12 U20 games with Leksands and scored a goal early in his time with Leksand’s Allsvenskan squad.

The rest of the defence seem to be interchangeable. Jeppe Mogensen, a member of AIK’s U20 junior team in Sweden, looked good in Latvia at the Four Nations tournament and had a solid outing with Denmark’s U18 team a year ago, too. Jakob Jessen was given top pairing minutes during the pre-tournament, and that may not look great given they lost 13-1 to Sweden a week before the tourney began. Still, he’s a smooth skater and he’s been solid in his first season in the top Danish league and has lots of experience playing for Denmark internationally.

Forwards: Alright, so Nikolaj Eh… nope. Oliver B… nope. Alexander True? False. Denmark’s biggest challenge in the tournament will be figuring out how to put pucks in the back of the net, something that actually seemed impressive on their end over the past few years. Perhaps their best option early on is right winger Jonas Røndbjerg, a 2017 draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights. Currently a member of the Vaxjo Lakers team in Sweden, Røndbjerg had an impressive four-point performance in eight Champions Hockey League games this year before getting a permanent role with the team in club action. He was Denmark’s top player at the 2017 Under-18 World Championships thanks to nine points in five games, just months removed from his second World Junior tournament. At the age of 18, and with the potential of another appearance next year, Røndbjerg will be asked to become a key figure on Denmark’s roster in his third crack at the U20’s.

Portland Winterhawks forward and San Jose Sharks prospect Joachim Blichfeld is off to a good sophomore campaign in the WHL, averaging over a point-per-game as a 19-year-old. Denmark’s second line center from last season brings speed, a good shot and a goal-scoring ability that truly makes him a dangerous threat each night. Nikolaj Krag Christensen hasn’t had a good season on the ice, failing to record a point in five Mestis games with LeKi before getting released in mid-November. Now with Rungsted Seier Capital until January 1st, this would be a good time for Christensen to prove himself in front of potential NHL scouts.

One of Denmark’s better players at the Four Nations tournament, Magnus Molge is on pace to double his point total from his first full U20 season in the Swedish SuperElit league. In all six of his Danish U20 games over the past two years, he’s managed to put up five points and if that trend continues, he could score a few in his only World Junior tournament. Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup should also be expected to pot a few goals after a strong start to his season in the USHL, but this will be his first time representing the Danes at the U20 level. Christian Wejse will hope his move back to the Danish league from the QMJHL will prove successful as a returning player, while Vaxjo forward David Madsen will hope his cause in his second World Junior tournament.

Projection: What Denmark does have on their side is chemistry, something that teams like Slovakia and Belarus will hope to thrive on. Many of Denmark’s key players have played together at various levels, giving them a familiarity that will at least get them going on the right foot. Their special teams, of course, will need to make sure they can thrive because that could be their only real chance of getting goals at a more consistent pace. They did well at the Four Nations tournament last month, but how will they fare against Canada, USA or Finland? As it stands, their match-up against Slovakia on New Years Eve is their best chance to steal a victory barring a miracle, but the Danes have been known to surprise again. But compared to other years, don’t count on it.

Do you like nightmares? No? Then you probably didn’t want to be a Finnish hockey fan a year ago in Montreal. A year off of winning gold at home, the Finns struggled to score throughout the tournament, meeting up with Latvia in the relegation round. The team didn’t seem built to win, with poor coaching (head honcho Jukka Rautakorpi was actually fired during the tournament) and a lack of solid veterans leading the way.

This time, the Finns look ready to compete for another gold. Sure, the team struggled at the Four Nations event in Russia in November, but without many of their stars, it was bound to happen. In fact, Eeli Tolvanen should be their most dangerous threat to challenge for the scoring title in Buffalo.

What does this year’s entry have in store in the United States this year?

Goaltending: There’s one thing that Finnish goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has to do: be good enough. Last year, Veini Vehvilainen was arguably Finland’s best player throughout, only to have his team get saved in relegation in one of Finland’s worst ever tournaments. This year, with a stronger roster overall, Luukkonen will just have to keep pucks out of the net less than Finland can score. Well, duh, but the point is that Finland’s offense and defense appears strong enough that as long as Lukkonen doesn’t blow any games, he’ll be fine. Of course, the Buffalo goalie is good enough to earn some wins. One of the best goalies in the Finnish junior league last year, Luukkonen has had a rough start to the year in the Mestis league, but his team isn’t doing much to help him.

Defencemen: A potential defenceman for the Finns at the Olympics too, Miro Heiskanen is set to lead the team on the blue line at the World Juniors after making his first appearance last year. The third overall pick in 2017 will be part of a more veteran defence core from a year ago, which struggled to limit scoring chances. He’ll be counted on to be a power-play leader, which works well considering how many minutes they’ll be counting on him for. Joining Heiskanen will be Urho Vaakanainen, a Boston first-rounder in 2017 looking to turn a nice season in Liiga with SaiPa into a big-minute performance at the World Juniors, his second time at the event. Vaakanainen has participated in many international tournaments at various levels, but he’s never been counted upon as a leader as much as he will be this year.

New York Islanders prospect Robin Salo is hoping his good World Junior Summer Showcase tournament will earn him more ice time as a 19-year-old, making his lone appearance at the tournament. Tri-City Americans star Juuso Välimäki is well on pace to hit at least 70 points in the WHL this season, and also hopes to chase his first gold medal with the Finns since the 2016 U18’s.

And how could we forget the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Olli Juolevi? He’s been off to a tremendous first-half of the season with TPS, his first year in Liiga after winning the Memorial Cup with London last year. Juolevi was one of the best players at the World Juniors in 2016, leading all defencemen with nine assists to help Finland win gold.

If there’s a position the Finns are lacking in, it’s surely not defence.

Forwards: There are few players with as hot of a start to the international year as Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen. An offensive specialist with a knack for punishing teams on the power play, Tolvanen played the first few months of the season at over a point per game average with Jokerit in the KHL, a massive accomplishment for any 18-year-old. At the Karjala Cup, Tolvanen helped the Finns grab gold at home thanks to three goals, including the tournament-winning marker against Canada.

The Finns have had some good NHL drafts in recent years, and Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen is no exception. A big forward with a great shot, Vesalainen’s two points from last year was a fluke when compared to the rest of his international resume. Vesalainen will be a star in the NHL one day, and when hooked up with Tolvanen on the wing, it’s going to be an unfair duo for the rest of the teams.

Boston Bruins draft pick Joona Koppanen is having a good debut season with Ilves in Liiga and he was one of Finland’s stronger players at the Four Nations event last month as well. Montreal Canadiens prospect Joni Ikonen was one of Finland’s best players at the World Junior Summer Showcase, while Janne Kuokkanen, who played four games with the Carolina Hurricanes to kick off the year, was simply a force to be reckoned with after five points in five games. Oh, and don’t forget about Aleksi Heponiemi, who is simply dominating the WHL this year and will easily surpass 100 points.

Projection: It’s hard to do worse than Finland did last year, considering the other option is literally relegation. On the back end, the team is flying high with players having lots of big game experience around the world. In the crease, the Finns have a guy capable of grabbing wins and getting the job done, while some of the tournament’s top forwards will be wearing blue and white. It should be a great year for the Finns, who have nothing to lose as the ninth-ranked seed

Evans Named To Team Canada’s Spengler Cup Roster

By Dan Colleran – University of Norte Dame

University of Notre Dame hockey senior forward and NCAA points leader Jake Evans has been named to Team Canada’s roster for the prestigious Spengler Cup, which will take place from Dec. 26-31, 2017, in Davos, Switzerland.

The Spengler Cup, which is widely considered the oldest invitational hockey tournament in the world, dates back to 1923. This year will mark the 91st edition of the tournament and in addition to Team Canada, the six-team field will include host HC Davos, HPK Hämeenlinna (Finland), Mountfield HK (Czech Republic), Dinamo Riga (KHL) and the Swiss national team.

Evans’ inclusion for Team Canada places the Irish captain on a roster that Canadian officials will use as an evaluation tool for the upcoming XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea (Feb. 9-25, 2018).

Evans leads the NCAA with 28 points on seven goals and an NCAA-best 21 assists. He has led Notre Dame to 13 consecutive wins to close out the first semester as well as the No. 3 ranking in both national polls.

The Toronto native, who has played 111 consecutive games, also leads the country in faceoffs won (277), even strength points (21) and is tied for the NCAA lead in games with at least three points (5). He was named the Big Ten’s Second Star on Oct. 10 and also earned Third Star honors on Oct. 31.

With a pair of third-period assists against Denver (Oct. 14), Evans became the 52nd player in program history to hit the 100-career points plateau. He now has 120 career points on 35 goals and 85 assists.

Spengler Cup: Analysis to determine the present form of the participating teams

https://www.spenglercup.ch/sites/default/files/styles/adaptive/public/upload/news/images/canada1_2.jpg?itok=abEzQoS9

By Spenglercup.ch

Five European teams will challenge the defending champion Canada at this year’s 91st Spengler Cup. The following is an analysis to determine the present form of the participating teams with just 2 weeks remaining before the tournament begins.

The Cup newbie, HPK, has been unable to equal their strong performance from last season in the Finnish league. The team is presently placed 12th in the standings and recently suffered a 3-game losing streak. With 12 points out of the last playoff spot, there is still hope. Perhaps their participation in the Spengler Cup will provide the team with the self-confidence and spirit they need.

The Russian KHL has already completed 40 rounds. Dynamo Riga is still suffering from their miserable season start and continues to be placed last in the standings with no chance to secure a playoff spot. However, their recent game results have been better and better. In the last few weeks, the team from Latvia has had 2 wins against Minsk and Bratislava while only losing against CSKA Moscow 0:1. Riga will certainly give their all to save their season with a Spengler Cup triumph.

Mountfield’s season is completely different. After 32 rounds in the Czech extra-league, Mountfield HK has been able to maintain their second place in the standings, only 3 points behind the leader Pilsen against whom the team won 6:0(!) last Sunday. Their direct playoff qualification is with 20 points ahead of the 7th placed team practically assured. Mountfield will travel to Davos with much confidence and even more ambition.

Team Canada is always a tournament favorite no matter where they play. However, they could not fulfill the expectations – or the pressure they put upon themselves – at the demanding Karjala Cup this past November. With losses against Russia and Sweden as well as a close win against Switzerland 3:2, these results were well below the expectations of the North Americans who are used to success. We are all eager to see the response Team Canada will give at the Spengler Cup. Should you still wager that the Canadians will reach the final, you may just win that bet.

The Swiss National Team is greatly looking forward to their participation in the traditional tournament. Swiss Ice Hockey also wants to secure their future before the Spengler Cup begins. As published in the media, Patrick Fischer is close to signing a 2-year extension to his contract as National Team Head Coach. It is not a surprise that Swiss Ice Hockey wishes to hold on to Fischer. Fischer took over the team almost exactly 2 years ago. After a slow start at the World Championships, the team under Fischer’s leadership made it to the quarter finals in Paris this past Spring. A strong performance at the Spengler Cup in front of a large Swiss audience will set the groundwork to obtaining a top spot at the Olympic Winter Games.

Following last weekend, the host Davos is placed 3rd in the National League standings. With wins against Fribourg and Biel, the team achieved their second 6-point weekend this season. But this excellent ranking is deceptive. Their 10-point lead to the first playoff spot (9th place) is not huge and shows how compact the Swiss top league teams stand. “In this league, anyone can beat anyone – there are no weak opponents”, candidly stated the HCD Captain, Andres Ambühl.

Russians impress in Finland

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Alexei Chistyakov’s team won three out of four games in Rauma, only losing out in a dead rubber against the host nation on the final day.

The Red Machine made short work of Sweden in its opening game, easing to a 4-1 victory after Valeria Pavlova scored twice in the first six minutes. Pavlova went on to finish with three goals in the tournament, second only to Sweden’s Hanna Olsson in the scoring charts.

Next, Chistyakov’s team recorded a 3-1 success over Germany before a tight battle against Japan was decided by Nina Pirogova’s second-period goal. The Finns, defeated by Sweden earlier in the competition, needed a regulation-time win over Germany to keep the tournament alive going into the final day’s play, but tied 2-2 before claiming a shootout success.

That didn’t stop the host picking itself up and blanking Russia in the final game of the tournament. A shutout from Noora Raty and a lively performance from the Finnish offence secured a 3-0 victory with goals from Michelle Karvinen, Linda Valimaki and Noora Tulus. That gave Finland second place overall, with Sweden one point further back in third. Germany’s shootout win over Japan helped to condemn the Japanese to last place in the group.

Olsson topped the scoring with 6 (4+2) points, ahead of Pavlova. Finland’s Jenni Hiirikoski also picked up four points, while Karvinen got three from just two games.

Olympic preparations will continue in December for Russia and Japan: the two nations are set to play a pair of exhibition matches in the Far East on 24 and 25 December.

Switzerland, inspired by goalie Florence Schelling, enjoyed an impressive victory in a Four Nations tournament in the Czech Republic. The Swiss gave up just one goal in three games, with Schelling repelling 96.43% of the shots she faced as her team showed its strength ahead of February’s action in Korea.

Switzerland began with a 2-0 win over Norway thanks to goals from Alina Muller and Evelina Raselli. Three first period goals set up a 4-0 victory against France in the second game, and it wasn’t until early in the second period of game three that Schelling was finally beaten. Klara Hymlarova scored for the Czechs, but could not prevent a 3-1 loss. Muller finished the event with three goals from three games, Laura Benz had 1+2 and Phoebe Staenz contributed a trio of assists.

The other three nations, none of which will be involved in Korea, proved evenly matched and finished the tournament tied on three points. Norway enjoyed the biggest win, shooting down the Czechs 5-2 with Andrea Dalen contributing 1+2. But it also suffered a 3-1 loss against France, with Emmanuelle Passard scoring twice as the French recovered from losing an early goal.

The home team enjoyed its only victory of the event on the opening day, edging France 2-1. Alena Polenska snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period; Hymlarova had an assist on the winning goal.

Russia wins on home ice

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

With Canada ambitious to test its European-based players, the event was extended to six teams like the Karjala Tournament in Helsinki once month earlier with the addition of Canada and Olympic host Korea.

However, it was the four traditional “Euro Hockey Tour” nations that occupied the top-four spots in Moscow with the hosts leading the way thanks to a clean record of three regulation-time wins.

It didn’t start that well though at the VTB Ice Palace that was built for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Fredrik Pettersson gave Sweden the lead in the countries’ first game but Russia fought back and Sergei Kalinin tied the game in the first period before Vyacheslav Voinov in the second and Nikita Gusev with a penalty shot in the third period made it a 3-1 victory.

In a much-anticipated game by the sell-out crowd of 12,680 fans Russia blanked Canada 2-0 on Saturday. The Canadians, many of them from clubs in the Russian-based KHL, dominated the game for two periods and had a 38-20 shot-on-goal advantage during 60 minutes. However, Vasili Koshechkin had a strong night in the net and in the third period Nikita Nesterov broke the deadlock with his power-play goal before Sergei Plotnikov scored the second goal for Russia.

The Czechs also started with two wins, 3-2 in overtime against Finland in a game that was played in front of 16,227 fans in Prague before settling over to Moscow, and 4-1 against Canada. On Sunday a 4-1 win against Sweden meant the Czechs were leading with eight points and Russia would need a regulation-time win in the last game of the tournament against Finland to claim the tournament win. A strong start with goal from Sergei Andronov and Maxim Shalunov gave Russia the sought-after cushion in a 3-0 win. Valeri Nichushkin scored the last goal with 17 seconds left into the empty net.

The lost point in the overtime win on the opening day cost the Czechs the tournament win who had to settle for second place and had the top-four point scorers of the tournament with Martin Erat (2+3=5), Vojtech Mozik (2+2=4), Martin Ruzicka (3+0=3) and Michal Repik (3+0=3).

Finland, Sweden and Canada followed in the standings with each having earned one victory in three games. Newcomer Korea, which for the first time played a tournament at this level, finished in last place. Their tightest game was a 4-2 loss against Canada on the first day after a first-period 2-1 lead thanks to two goals from Sangwook Kim before the Canadians turned the game with second-period markers from Marc-Andre Gragnani and Wojtek Wolski.

Russia’s Koshechkin was named Best Goaltender of the tournament after a 98.36 save percentage from his two starts against Sweden and Canada. Ilya Sorokin played Russia’s last game earning a shutout. His teammate Voinov was named Best Defenceman and the Best Forward award went to Korean player Kisung Kim.

For Russia it was a “double win” during the weekend as their B squad played at the MECA Hockey Games where they beat host Norway 4-3 in overtime, Slovakia 3-2 in overtime and France 3-1. Defenceman Mikhail Naumenkov was the top scorer for his team with three points (2+1). Slovakia’s Tomas Surovy (1+3) and Andrej Kudrna (3+0) led the tournament in scoring. Norway’s Olimb brothers Mathis (2+1) and Ken Andre (1+2) also notched three points.

Slovakia finished the events in second place thanks to wins against France (4-2) and host Norway with Kudrna notching the shootout winner after a scoreless game. Host Norway was third while France didn’t earn any points.

Two back-to-back games were played in Belarus where the hosts blanked Kazakhstan 3-0 before winning the second match 2-1 after a Viktor Turkin overtime goal.

Malaysian juniors win

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

For the first time in this format an IIHF Ice Hockey U20 Challenge Cup of Asia was held and the winner is… Malaysia! The Southeast Asian nation won the tournament at its new home, the Malaysia National Ice Skating Stadium that opened earlier this year as the first full-size ice rink of the country just outside of the capital of Kuala Lumpur.

It was the first time an U20 Challenge Cup of Asia was held for countries that don’t participate in the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship program. The tournament was one of several that will be hosted in Kuala Lumpur after the inauguration with 2017 Southeast Asian Games four months ago. The 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia Division I on the men’s side and the two IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia divisions will be hosted at the same venue in March.

Malaysia’s win came as a surprise considering that in senior hockey the country is ranked behind several of the participating nations. But the Malays allowed just seven goals in four games and scored 36. Eventually no opponent came closer than a five-goal margin against the hosts.

The biggest win came on the opening day with a 11-0 crushing of neighbouring country Philippines where the first goal was scored after just 31 seconds and the Malays got a 3-0 lead after just over three minutes of play.

Against India the hosts had a tougher fight in the beginning. The Indians managed to tie the score three times in the first half of the game before Malaysia eventually skated to a 12-4 victory.

The third game was the deciding one as both Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan started with a 2-0 record. Kyrgyzstan had beaten the Philippines (12-4) and the United Arab Emirates (10-2) before the Saturday night game with the hosts and Zhanbolot Tagayev opened the scoring after 54 seconds to give the Kyrgyz the lead. It was the only time during the tournament the Malays were behind. However, Nurul Nizam Deen Versluis tied it up just two minutes later and Mohammad Hariz Mohammad Oryza Ananda followed up with two more goals en route to a 6-1 win.

On Sunday 826 fans saw Malaysia also win its last game, 7-2 against the United Arab Emirates, to celebrate the tournament win on home ice with a clean streak. Kyrgyzstan also won its last game, 13-2 against India, and had to settle for second place.

The United Arab Emirates, the top-seeded among these nations in men’s senior hockey, recovered and finished in third place thanks to its wins against India (6-0) and the Philippines (8-4). The Philippines beat winless India 11-5 in its last game to earn three points.

Host Malaysia led the scoring stats with three players. Mohammad Hariz Mohammad Oryza Ananda was the scoring leader and MVP with 11 goals and 7 assists followed by Nurul Nizam Deen Versluis (7+10) and Chee Ming Bryan Lim (6+7), the team captain who was named Best Forward.

“Our team is strong because we all have faith in each other including our coaches and team managers. Every single one of us is attached by this unbreakable bond that we would normally call it brotherhood. Every individual in our team made sacrifices in their own personal life to contribute to the family and that only grew our trusts towards each other even stronger. If one of us has trouble, all of us as a team will help out,” the captain described the reason behind Malaysia’s success.

Philippines defenceman Benjamin Jorge Imperial was the best non-Malay scorer with six goals and four assists and was named Best Defenceman of the tournament. Andrei Trishkin (Kyrgyzstan), Mohamed Al Mehairbi (UAE), Ersultan Mirbed Uulu (Kyrgyzstan) and Islambek Abdyrayev (Kyrgyzstan) followed with nine points. Tsewang Dorjay was India’s dominating player upfront with six goals and eight points.

Abdulrahman Al Hosani from the United Arab Emirates was named Best Goaltender. The Emirati were second-best in goaltending efficiency behind Malaysia in the team stats. Al Hosani had a save percentage of 84.43. That statistic was led by Malaysia’s Shahrul Ilyas Abdul Shukor with 97.56.

The event was the last IIHF tournament before the beginning of the holiday season. The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, USA, begins on 26th December.

World Junior Preview: Belarus & Czech Republic

By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com

When Belarus participated at the 2016 World Juniors, it’s fair to say they were one of the worst newly-promoted teams in many years. With all their stars from the previous year graduated to the next level, the squad was left with little hope and nothing to show for.

Now they’re back, but it’s a different story. Sure, the team still has little chance at staying up in the top group, but didn’t everyone say that about Denmark in 2015? Belarus has something they didn’t have two years ago, and that’s familiarity. Many of their key players from a year ago are back, and even some guys return from the 2016 tournament with more experience under their belt.

Goaltending: Every time a team comes up to the top division, it’s expected that their starting goalie will need to be incredible. Mareks Mitens was spectacular at points for Latvia last year, and George Sorenson was one of the best stories of the 2015 tournament. Is it time for Andrei Grishenko to be the answer for Belarus? After being one of the main reasons why Belarus survived the relegation round at the recent Under-18 tournament, he better be. Grischenko had a good Four Nations tournament in mid-November and helped lead his team to the tournament victory for the second straight year. Acting as Belarus’ U20 starter in the domestic league, Grischenko has been one of his team’s best players and will need to keep that momentum going on the big stage in Buffalo.

Defencemen: The goaltending will need to be spectacular, mainly because the defence will be so overworked and overmatched by some of the game’s best junior hockey players. They’ll be counting on Vladislav Yeryomenko, who has been an integral piece for the Calgary Hitmen alongside future NHL defenceman Jake Bean. Sitting at nearly a point-per-game in his second WHL campaign, Yeryomenko will end up smoking last year’s offensive total out of the water and will bring a two-way presence to the Belarusian blueline. He was Belarus’ best player at the recent Under-18 tournament and was integral in helping get Belarus promoted to the top tournament, so expect him to get a heavy workload this year.

As an 18-year-old a year ago, Vladislav Martynyuk had quite the campaign with Belarus’ U20 team in league action, finishing third in team scoring with 24 points. Midway through the year, he helped Belarus win the gold medal at the Division IA World Juniors, leading the tournament in assists by a defenceman with four. A year prior, he was named the U18 Division IA top defenceman after leading the defencemen with six assists, also helping his team earn promotion.

Another returning name from the team a year ago, Dmitri Deryabin, could also earn some time in relief of Belarus’ two biggest blueline assets. He currently leads all Belarus U20 defencemen in team scoring and has definitely earned his ice time. Losing Prince Albert Raiders defender Sergei Sapego to a hand injury definetly will hurt the squad, but it will give a chance for some of their local guys to get some ice time. Whatever you do, though, don’t expect Belarus to be strong overall in the defensive department.

Forwards: Belarus won’t be beating any teams in the scoring department and may not actually lead a game until (maybe) the relegation round. Having your key players score at the domestic level is fine, but when it comes to shooting on future NHL star goaltenders, it’s a totally different story. Second-year Owen Sound Attack forward Maksim Sushko will be counted upon to drive pucks to the net, and after spending the first half of the season as a point-per-game forward at the age of 18, he’s had a nice start to the campaign. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect didn’t have that great of a tournament for Belarus at last year’s DIA event, but as a 17-year-old, that was expected. He was Belarus’ top player on the 2016 Under-18 World Junior team, posting six points in five games to help Belarus on their run to gold.

It starts to thin out a bit CHL-wise after Sushko, however. Artyom Baltruk started the season with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings but parted ways with the club after just five games. Baltruk hasn’t overly adjusted to life back in Belarus, but in a bottom six role, he could offer the team some depth due to his ability to switch between center and winger. Igor Martynov has had a better season in the WHL, putting up 14 points in his first 25 games of action as a third line winger for Victoria.

Minsk native Alexander Lukashevich will be used frequently as a 19-year-old. With over a point-per-game halfway through the year, Lukashevich has been able to find the net on many occasions and currently leads the club in scoring. Then there is Nazar Anismov, who’s as good of a goal scorer as Belarus could get. One of Belarus’ top players at the most recent Four Nations event, Anismov has graduated from an explosive division two season a year ago to become one of the most dangerous scoring threats on Belarus’ U20 club team. Paired with Lukashevich and potentially Sushko, Belarus has at least one decent forward combination to work with.

Outside of their top scoring threats, Belarus will need a couple of goals out of the rest of their depth. Viktor Bovbel comes to mind after a nice Four Nations tournament and a good season in Belarus. Ivan Drozdov has also been fantastic for Belarus, moving over to Belarus’ U20 team after recording five points in four games with Yunost Minsk. Don’t forget about his impressive seven-point performance at the Belarus Cup earlier in the season, either.

Projection: Belarus has some offensive weapons, but after that? Not much to work with. It’ll be a tough tournament for the team, that won’t score much and will need a miracle of a goaltending performance to steal a game or force another to overtime. Getting points at any point they possibly can is essential, but with games against Sweden and Russia to kick off the tournament, they’ll spend most of their time playing catch-up. Expect them to meet up with Denmark or Slovakia in the relegation round.

By now, the Czech’s have got to be sick with mediocrity. When they won their only World Junior tournament back in 2000, Jarmoir Jagr was the NHL’s best player, still in the midst of one of the greatest career’s hockey has ever seen. Now, Jagr is nearly 46 and has played on eight different teams. If you look at the roster that won gold that year, the team’s top scorer, Milan Kraft, was out of the NHL by 2004 and only one player, Martin Havlat, really had much of an NHL career.

So now we’re heading into 2018. The Czech’s haven’t won a medal since 2005 and finishing in fifth or sixth is as common as Canada hosting the tournament. Last year, they fell behind Denmark, who were able to win their first regulation game EVER at the top World Junior level.

But two years removed from an unlikely Hlinka Memorial Tournament championship over the United States, there’s finally a bit more hope for a Czech team trying to turn their fortunes around.

Goaltending: Having played on various Czech national junior teams over his career, many without much to work with, Jakub Škarek’s stats when playing internationally may not look all that impressive. When you dig a bit deeper, however, it’s clear Škarek looks prepared to lead a Czech team with a bit more promise than usual. Škarek represented his nation at the juniors a year ago, during a season that saw him win the most Czech division two league wins and push his team into the top division for the current campaign, on top of an impressive Hlinka Memorial gold medal. He’s had good stats in his first season in the top Czech league, beating out former Boston Bruins prospect and Norwegian national team goalie Lars Volden for the starting role on HC Dukla Jihlava. He’ll be counted upon as an 18-year-old to lead the Czech’s as far as they can go, and if he does return next year, he has the potential to be one of the best goalies in the tournament. That’s a lot of pressure for a young guy, though, so the Czech’s will need to do a good job of protecting their net.

Defensemen: The influx of young stars looking to have their name called at the NHL Draft in June are expected to lead this young team over the next two years. Filip Kral is one of those players. Currently in his first season with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, Kral was given lots of ice time and his offensive nature has been able to flourish. Kral has had a busy year, having played for three different teams in three different leagues, as well as two Champions Hockey League contests.

The lone NHL-drafted prospect on the blue line is Jakub Galvas, a defender Chicago hopes will blossom into a useful player down the line. A strong, two-way defenseman with the ability to be aggressive on a forecheck, Galvas was instrumental in helping the Czech’s win the 2016 Hlinka Memorial tournament, leading all defenders in scoring with two goals and five points in five games. Galvas is currently in his second season with HC Olomouc of the Czech league, where he has already seen his production rise from a season ago. Galvas has looked good against men and may be their best bet on the blue line.

After that, though, the Czech’s start to thin out. In terms of shutdown defenders, Ondrej Vala, who played in three games with the AHL’s Texas Stars a year ago after signing with the club back in September of 2016, has been good for the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. Offensively, he doesn’t put up much, but the Czech’s have used him at every international level, including last year’s World Juniors. Vala will get lots of ice time for the Narodnitym, so expect him to be busy.

HC Plzen defenseman David Kvasnicka is also returning, helping the experienced back end, even if he only played one game with the team a year ago. Kvasnicka was also apart of the dream Hlinka Memorial team back in 2016 and a few months later, he would be the Czech’s best defender at the World Junior A Challenge in Canada. With lots of experience on the international stage, Kvasnicka knows what every emotion feels like when donning his nations colors, but will that translate into any form of success for him and his teammates? They’ll be worked rather hard, after all.

Forwards: The Czech’s, for once, appear to have a very strong forward group to choose from, meaning they’ll have more weapons than usual. Leading the charge is Filip Zadina, a prospect that’s expected to be one of the first five picks in the upcoming draft. The third top scorer at the Hlinka Memorial two years ago, Zadina has done everything right in his young career and is simply a scoring machine. One of the QMJHL’s best players, Zadina transferred over from the Czech league, where he had just two points in 25 games, and has become one of the best imports the CHL has seen in years (something Halifax is really good at). Zadina has been a polarizing figure wherever he’s played and had a whopping 31 points in 22 games with the Czech U18 team last year. If all goes well, Zadina will be the team’s top left winger throughout the tournament and be counted on for big goals throughout his first World Junior tournament.

One of the biggest question marks was whether or not Filip Chytil would be able to play following an injury in early December. After missing just a few games, Chytil was ready to represent the Czech’s just months after getting drafted 21st overall by the New York Rangers. In his first season with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the dynamic offensive player was playing at nearly a point per game in the AHL and has even seen a few games with the Rangers, too. Chytil was one of the Czech’s best players at both the Under-18’s and Hlinka Memorial last season while also playing a full season in the Czech league. Chytil has done everything right at a young age and it’s hard to believe the team should be able to retain him next season unless he makes the jump up to the NHL.

Carolina Hurricanes prospect Martin Necas is one of the better European prospects right now, and it’s hard to believe the team will get him for what could be three tournaments overall, especially after being one of the tournament’s best draft-eligible prospects a year ago. Necas has been magnificent any time he’s represented his nation and the Czech’s clearly value him, having made him captain at the 2016 Hlinka Memorial tournament. Necas made the Hurricanes out of training camp but was returned to HC Kometa Brno where he’s currently playing in his second season of professional hockey in the Czech Republic. Necas continues to impress on a team that includes former NHLers Martin Erat and Tomas Vincour and should be a fascinating prospect to follow in Buffalo.

Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin has been around the point-per-game mark all season long with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs and has proven that coming to North America was smart for his future. A big offensive contributor at the U18 level for the Czech’s, Safin has always been among the best against his peers and his shot is one of the scariest in the tournament. You typically won’t have to worry about Safin getting too fancy with the puck, but he gets the job done and is always a factor in his own zone.

The Czech’s have some great depth up front, including centre man Kristian Reichel. The son of former NHLer Robert, Kristian has been good at every international level for the Czech’s, including the past two World Junior A Challenge tournaments. This will be his second World Junior tournament, and with the experience he has, the Czech’s won’t hesitate to use Reichel, even if it’s mainly in a bottom six role. Then there’s Albert Michnac, who, out of nowhere, became the Mississauga Steelheads best player by the time training camp opened up. A 19-year-old with limited experience with the Czech’s, this will be the biggest tournament of his international career, which is fitting given how good he’s been with the defending OHL finalists.

Projection: If the Czech’s are to surprise anybody, they’ll need a near-perfect tournament. This is as good of a squad as they’ve brought, with great depth up front and a solid goalie to work with. Their only glaring concern looks to be their weak back end, but the team has enough talent and chemistry to be a true contender, at least more than in recent years. Expect them to actually compete for a medal this year, but don’t expect anything better than the bronze medal game at best.

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